Top 10 Trips around Japan in 2014

I can’t believe it’s already the final day of 2014! It has been an incredible year, full of adventures, making new friends, and just enjoying life as much as possible! It was my second year living in Tokyo and I’m feeling more and more like a “Tokyoite”. Living on the west side of the city means I’ve gotten to know Shinjuku, Shibuya and Harajuku pretty well. Seeing the famous Shibuya Scramble no longer gives me that rush of excitement – it’s now kind of amusing seeing tourists running out to take their pictures of the masses crossing the intersection! These days, I like to think I’ve got Shinjuku Station down pat. And by that I mean I only sometimes get lost there – in my defence there are more than 200 exits, okay?! And in Harajuku, I’ve discovered some pretty cool little cafes.

2014 was also a year of many many ‘firsts’. I visited the United States for the first time, I finally got my Japanese Drivers Licence and drove for the first time in Japan, I watched a Japanese musical (The Little Mermaid), attended a sports match, and joined in on the Japanese custom of sending nengajo (New Year postcards)!

I also squeezed in a lot of travel within Japan – on holidays, weekends, and days off – so much so that this post is going to be based on these trips. I had a lot on my travel to-do list this year, and it’s an awesome feeling to say that I’ve ticked off most of them. It’s all about determination and organisation!

Without further ado, I give you my Top 10 most memorable trips around Japan this year (in chronological order).

Tokamachi Snow Festival (February)

Tokamachi is serious snow country in winter. It lies in the middle of Niigata prefecture, about a 2-hour train ride north of Tokyo. I went to the Snow Festival there with my mum who was visiting back in February. Of all weekends, it just happened to be on one that saw a major blizzard sweep across the country. We were forced to stay longer than we had planned, and all of the snow sculptures were unfortunately covered with fresh snow, but it was still one of the coolest things I’ve seen! I’d definitely go back again next year.

Visiting Hokkaido for the first time (April)

I was super pumped to fly to Hokkaido for the first time. It had been on my bucket list since moving to Japan. This northernmost island of Japan is most famous for its powder snow, so a friend and I went up for a few days of snowboarding. I met some extremely kind people who made the trip all the more special, visited a chocolate factory and a beer factory, ate a lot of fresh seafood and discovered the wonderful Otaru Canal – a beautifully preserved waterway that used to link the warehouses with ships in the bay.

Snow Corridor and Japan Alps (May)

After visiting snowy Hokkaido, I was inspired to see the famous Snow Corridor in Toyama prefecture. This road is along the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, and is closed for the duration of winter. A snow wall, up to 20 metres high, is created when they clear the road in spring, and is visible from April to June. Beyond the snow wall is Mt Tateyama, a part of the Northern Alps. This pure white landscape was truly spectacular!

Rainy season at Meigetsu-in (June)

A bit closer to home, Kamakura is a city just an hour or so south of Tokyo. I went to a temple called Meigetsu-in for the first time, after hearing about their beautiful hydrangea stairway. I loved seeing the unusual shapes and colours of the flowers, some which are only found in Kamakura.

Fuji Rock Music Festival (July)

I’d wanted to go to the Fuji Rock Music Festival for ages, and finally made it happen this year. A friend and I went for the final of the 3 days and camped overnight there. It is a massive festival, with 7 main stages plus many smaller ones as well as other attractions. The festival is located at a ski resort in the middle of nowhere in Niigata prefecture. It really is like a rave in the mountains!

Climbing Mt Fuji (August)

By far one of my best memories of 2014 was witnessing an epic sunrise from the summit of Mt Fuji. It was a tough hike. We started at 2,300m at 7pm, getting to the top, 3776m, around 2am. We eventually made it back down around 9am. Luckily we had amazing weather the entire time. I was left with some foot related injuries, but I still think it was one of the best experiences of my life!

Matsumoto Castle (September)

One of 4 castles that are national treasures, Matsumoto Castle is the only black one. It’s nicknamed the Crow because of its colour, and was never actually attacked by enemies which has left it in a remarkable condition. Matsumoto Castle is in Nagano prefecture, about 2.5 hour bus trip from Tokyo. The day I went, there happened to be an event celebrating Matsumoto’s sister city relationship with a town in Switzerland. I got to watch an amazing taiko (drum) performance, as well as hear some genuine yodelling!

Discovering Karuizawa (October-November)

One of my new favourite places in Japan is the town of Karuizawa in Nagano prefecture. It’s known as a summer resort with lots of sporting, shopping and outdoor activities for young and old. I visited the town for the first time in October and fell in love with the natural beauty of the area! I was back a few weeks later to enjoy the mesmerising autumn colours. It’s an easy 2 hour trip from Tokyo, so I will definitely be going back many times in 2015!

Road trip to Ibaraki (October-November)

After finally getting my act together to get my Japanese Drivers Licence, some friends and I went on 2 road trips to Ibaraki prefecture, a few hours north-east of Tokyo. I was very excited to be back behind the wheel! On our first trip, we went to the Hitachi Hillside Park to see the bright red kochia shrubs. The second time was an overnight trip, visiting a few autumn leaves spots like Fukurodo Falls. Ibaraki is beautiful in autumn!

Autumn colours in Toyama (November)

The BEST autumn leaves spot of 2014, in my opinion! After talking with a sweet elderly lady who we met on our way to the Snow Corridor back in May, my friend and I decided we would return to Toyama to visit the Torokko Train. I’m so glad we listened to her advice. The scenic train winds through the Kurobe Gorge, parallel to the emerald-coloured Kurobe River. We timed our trip perfectly and were able to see the colours at their peak. It was an unforgettable experience and I’ll always treasure the memory of being there.

As you can see, most of my trips were to Nagano, Niigata, and Toyama prefectures which are all in the Chubu region of Japan, and no more than 3-4 hours from Tokyo. If you’re planning a trip to Japan in 2015, please consider these places for a day or overnight trip!

As for me, there’s still so much more to discover in Japan. Some places at the top of my 2015 list are Shikoku, Yakushima, Okinawa, Niseko, as well as return to northern Tohoku. Can’t wait!!

Happy New Year to you all! Party safely!

Autumn in the Mountains

If you saw my “Hello, Autumn” post, you might recognise this place as one of my top picks for autumn this year. I’m happy to say I have checked the Torokko Train off the list. I got to experience the amazing Unazuki Onsen and Kurobe Valley in Toyama prefecture a couple of weekends ago!

It’s always hard to predict when the best time to visit a koyo (autumn leaves) spot will be. The forecasters usually say something like mid-October to late-November, in the hopes that the peak happens sometime in that time frame. For our trip, we got extremely lucky! The leaves were more or less at their peak. These photos don’t do it justice at all! The mountains were covered in splashes of vibrant yellows, oranges, reds and greens. And together with the emerald-coloured river, there were stunning views in every direction. On top of that, the forecasted rain miraculously mostly held off, leaving us with a beautiful light fog throughout the valley.

The Torokko Train left from Unazuki Onsen station, and travelled for over an hour through the valley following the Kurobe River to the final stop, Keyakidaira. At the end, we got off and checked out some walking trails. I was in heaven! If it wasn’t for my friends prodding me to keep going, I may have stayed there forever! When we eventually got back to Unazuki at the end of the day, we relaxed in the Unazuki Onsen rotemburo (outdoor hot springs), from which we could look out and see the train snake around the mountainside on the other side of the river! I think it will go down as one of the most memorable trips I’ve had in Japan!

Hello, Autumn!

The singing and the dancing die away
as cooling breezes fan the pleasant air,
inviting all to sleep
without a care.

– from “Autumn” by Vivaldi

What better soundtrack is there to describe the changes through the seasons than Vivaldi’s most famous concertos? I played the violin for about 10 years – until I was 16-17 years old – and really wish I still played regularly. My violin is at my parents’ home, so I have to make do with playing the ‘air violin’ whenever I feel the urge! I remember practicing Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ many times when I was younger – as challenging as they are to play, it’s fun to get swept away with the music!

Kyoto, 2012

We had a relatively mild summer in Tokyo this year – I think I remember it being pretty hot and humid way back in June just before the rainy season started, but apart from that, it’s been surprisingly bearable! Just in the past few days, it’s started to get chilly – always the first sign of autumn! And that got me excited for the next few months! Autumn is my favourite season for hiking, and possibly my favourite season for fashion. Bring on scarves and knee-high boots!

Around this time last year, I wrote a post on the places I wanted to go to for autumn leaves viewing (called 紅葉 koyo in Japanese). My ‘Autumn Mission’ took me to different parts of inner Tokyo – like Shinjuku Park and temples around Setagaya, as well as Showa Memorial Park in Tachikawa (western Tokyo) and the World Heritage temples in Nikko (2 hours north of Tokyo). It was fantastic to witness all of those beautiful places!

So this year, I’m back with even more eagerness to get out there! There are a few places I didn’t get round to seeing in Tokyo last year, for example:
Meiji Jingu Gaien, famous for its grand avenue of yellow gingko trees.
Koishikawa Korakuen, a stunning garden next to Tokyo Dome.
Rikugien Gardens, which also has night time ‘light ups’.

Outside of Tokyo, I have 3 places which I will 100% try to get to this year!
Kurobe Gorge, Toyama. After going to Tateyama in the Northern Alps earlier this year, it’s been my goal to go back during autumn. There’s a famous scenic train called the Torokko train which winds its way through the gorge. Lots of hiking, clear rivers and a few onsens (hot springs). It’ll be a great weekend trip!

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Kurobe Gorge Torokko train. Image from Rurubu.com

Hananuki, Ibaraki. On the east coast of Japan, a couple of hours north of Tokyo, is the Hananuki Gorge. A picture of the suspension bridge leading us into a canopy of red and orange is what first caught my eye a couple of years ago. It looks like a perfect overnight getaway from Tokyo.

Tsuchitake Bridge in the Hananuki Gorge. Image from Rurubu.com

Miyoshi, Shikoku. This place has been the highest on my list for the longest! I’ve never been to the island of Shikoku, I guess it’s because I’ve always thought it’s not easy to get to, and once you’re there, you really need your own car to get around. Since I got my Japanese driver licence earlier this year, and I’ve discovered I can get there on an overnight bus, there’s nothing stopping me now! I’ve always wanted to walk across the ‘vine bridges’, made out of actual vines which stretch across the gorges. There’s also lots of good hiking, food, and scenery which I don’t think you can get anywhere else in Japan. Can’t wait!

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Yoshino River cruises. Image from WalkerPlus.com

A Spring Adventure: Tateyama Alpine Route

I was in a dream, standing on a vast plateau of snow, 2.5km above sea level, looking up to Mount Tate (3015m) and the surrounding alps. In every direction, as far (and high) as the eye could see, there was blinding ‘whiteness’. Snow-covered mountains sparkled under the bright sun. Clouds, although deceivingly soft and delicate looking, would roll by at such a high pace that in a matter of minutes, the striking blue sky would be smothered in a complete white-out.

On one side of the plateau, the mountains reached up to the heavens. Though, with no trees to contrast against the white slopes, it was hard to grasp just how massive these mountains were. It wasn’t until I discovered that those tiny black moving dots on the side of the mountain were actually skiers, that I realised the true scale! By the way, this is no ski resort… there are no ski lifts. The only way to ski down the mountain, is to first trek to the top! Those guys are tough!! I love snow sports, but that is taking it to whole other level!

The opposite side of the plateau is where most visitors tend to go. Beyond a pretty crater lake (which is frozen and covered in snow until June) and ‘Hell Valley’ where volcanic gas constantly billows out of the ground, there is actually a ryokan hotel with restaurant and indoor hot springs. It seemed a bit weird to see a man-made object plonked in the middle of the natural surrounds, but where there are people, there will be buildings!

Besides all of that, however, is something that stands on its own as the main attraction. Something that had been on my bucket list for ages, and is the reason I came to know about the whole place… the Tateyama Snow Corridor.

After five months of closure during winter, a narrow road is dug out for the opening of the alpine route which is accessible from April to November. They use machinery that cuts away at the compacted snow, and shoots it up in the air away from the road. At the deepest point near the Murodo Plateau, the height of the wall has been known to reach up to 20 metres after a harsh winter with heavy snowfall!

It’s a place I would highly recommend if you enjoy being in the great outdoors. So let me show you how to get there.

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Toyama Station
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Tateyama Station
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Steep ascent with beautiful views

After an overnight bus ride from Tokyo, we arrived very early in the morning (around 5:30am) in Toyama on Japan’s west coast. After grabbing some breakfast, we went from Toyama Station to Tateyama Station via the Toyama Chiho Railroad and Tateyama Cable Car. Even at 6 in the morning, there were plenty of other people all headed for the same place, so we basically just had to follow the crowd. Along the way we passed beautiful, clear rivers and so much vibrant greenery!

The next leg was from Tateyama Station to Murodo Plateau via the Tateyama Highland Bus. Here, we travelled through a cedar forest full of ancient trees and wild animals. Some cheeky monkeys were playing on the road, grinding all traffic to a halt. When the coast was clear, we continued up the winding road through thick fog – sometimes we couldn’t see anything at all out the window. As we got higher up the mountain, the banks of snow on either side of the road got higher and higher, until we literally couldn’t see over the top of them.TateyamaTateyamaTateyamaTateyamaTateyama

 

And finally, we made it! The mighty snow corridor! The walls towered over the people and buses, stretching 13m straight up. One section of the wall is designated the ‘graffiti wall’ for aspiring artists such as myself :-P You can see messages written by people from all around the world!

Tateyama

 

The wall was very cool, but the best part for me was the spectacular plateau and mountain range. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before.

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Snow-covered crater lake and Mt Tate in the background
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Turquoise Mikurigaike Lake
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Jumping for joy!
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Hell Valley – volcanic gas
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Watching the clouds swiftly roll by
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I spy… teeny tiny skiers!

And finally, a postcard sent from the highest post office in Japan (2,450m)! The lucky recipient should get it soon!

Tateyama